This post was almost entitled Les fleurs du mal, but I couldn't associate these beautiful bluebells with anything negative. The walk in the woods yesterday, in Halle - the "H" in BHV (of which more below) - was as usual devoid of politics, though as expected in this part of suburban territory southwest of Brussels (a.k.a. "B" in BHV), all the trail signs were in Dutch. We have adopted a formula when encountering fellow hikers, who could either be Flemish or French-speakers (or maybe even other foreigners) - my wife says bonjour, and I say goeiedag, like the Aussi "G'day!" A perfect example from the foreigners to the locals on how to use their unique linguistic situation to positive effect.
What, you might ask, is all this BHV stuff? It's shorthand for a federal voting district, the only one remaining in Belgium that crosses linguistic lines. Brussels, Halle, and Vilvoorde, which in almost any other country would simply be called "Greater ______" and here should be called "Metropolitan Brussels," remain stitched together in a throwback to the days when Belgium saw itself as a unified country. The goal of most of the Dutch-speaking political class is to "split" (that's also the Dutch word) BHV, leaving the officially bilingual but mostly francophone Brussels even more of an island in Dutch-speaking Flanders. The French-speakers see that as a dangerous step towards splitting the country (they call it scission, which does conjure up the word secession).
Belgium does "splits" rather naturally, though the results are never as clean as log-splitting being prepared here in the Hallerbos. We know a couple from neighboring Luxembourg who studied in the ancient University of Louvain when it was located in Leuven, a lovely Flemish town east of Brussels.
They were there in the Sixties, when Flemish nationalists succeeded in chasing the francophones away, who then proceeded to build Louvain-la-Neuve, a soulless concrete new town dedicated to housing the French half of the university. Right down to the books. Just think of Harvard's library, divided along, say, color lines: "green books stay here, red covers off to Cape Cod Community College." Our friends and many others wept at the mindless sectarianism, which back then even included violence.
These days, the separatists appear to be using nitpicking linguistic laws rather than brute force, and the cumulative effect is probably as efficient. Some francophones who would brave the linguistic divide in search of better housing or cheaper prices run up against laws that are written with linguistic purity in mind. Some discriminative practices set up by the Flemish authorities have run afoul of the Council of Europe, the human rights watchdog, notably over the "Wooncode" which makes the needy pass a Dutch test to become eligible for social housing.
But how about the current political crisis, you ask? Oh yes: last week a report on BHV triggered the resignation of the Prime Minister, which brings us full circle to summer 2007, when elections started a cycle of interim PM, interminable negotiations to form a coalition, Leterme I government, resignation and another governement, followed by Leterme II, followed by his second resignation... I've actually left out a couple of resignations.
As Julian Stares says in today's London Observer, there's an apocryphal story about how British leaders "give their Belgian counterparts less time than others at EU summits because they know that within a year or two they'll be dealing with someone new." That would certainly be true in the last three years. Think of the economic cost to Belgium of this protracted political instability - would you invest here?
Belgian politicians, it would seem, abetted perhaps by a news media that gives inordinate amounts of coverage to the most obscure of quarrels over linguistic-regional issues, blithely ignore the toll their games are taking on the image of Belgium. If anything, they should be worried about "Brand Brussels," which is the international hook that draws foreign investors and visitors. But to many Flemish politicians, Brussels is a kind of Gomorrah of immigrants, crime, and French-speakers. They don't like it, but they don't want it to leave their embrace.
At least we can go for a walk in the Flemish forest. Goeiedag.